Left, right: You’re talking about feet, right?

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Andre Blais is making a career of studying Canadians’ voting patterns and political knowledge, and the experience can be discouraging.

“Some people are extremely well-informed. Other people are extremely uninformed. But I think we can assume that the majority of voters are not very well-informed,” says Professor Blais, co-author of Citizens, a book that explores what Canadians know about politics.

A professor of political science at the Université de Montréal, Prof. Blais holds the Canada research chair in electoral studies. He is also one of the academics behind the Canadian Election Study, a project that has analyzed why Canadians vote the way they do since 1965. The investigators study responses from thousands of voters to surveys conducted during and after each election.

The project has examined every election up to 2004 (though analysis of that vote has yet to be finalized). The findings indicate Canadian voters know far less than politicians might expect.

Many are confounded by even the most basic of political terms. One study, the authors note, found only 40% of voters surveyed could or would define the difference between politics of the “left” and “right.”

“And many of those who did venture definitions seemed to have quite fuzzy understandings,” the researchers write.

After the 2000 federal election, only about one-third of respondents were able to place the NDP on the left end of the political spectrum, or place the Canadian Alliance on the right.

The researchers also found about a third of Canadians could not correctly attribute a single election promise to the party that made it, even when the questions listed the most basic elements of a party’s platform, such as the Canadian Alliance’s plan for a flat tax rate.

Men, university graduates and wealthy Canadians expressed the greatest interest in politics and paid the most attention to political news, while women, poorer Canadians and young or uneducated voters typically knew less about politics.

And even though the Liberals had won a third straight majority under Jean Chrétien, one in 10 Canadians interviewed for the Canadian Election Study could not name him as party leader.

Canadians’ knowledge of Paul Martin, the current Liberal leader, was not much better. After the 1997 election, fewer than two in five could identify him as the federal finance minister. More than twice as many Canadians could correctly identify the president of the United States as Bill Clinton.

“The Canadian public contains deep pockets of political ignorance and political illiteracy,” the authors write.

“Disturbing as these figures are, they probably overstate the level of political knowledge in the country for the simple reason that people who tune out politics altogether are less likely to agree to take part in an election survey.”

Misinformation is another problem. The authors of Citizens note that during the 1997 election, nearly 60% of the respondents believed aboriginal people were better off or about the same as other Canadians, even though their unemployment rate was almost triple the general population’s (27% versus 10%) and the life expectancy of male status Indians was 7-1/2 years less than the average Canadian man’s.

Canadians also scored poorly on questions about the crime rate, as well as pollution levels and poverty.

It may be tempting to fault voters for their ignorance, but experts stress they are not solely to blame. Henry Milner, a political scientist in Québec who specializes in political participation and knowledge, argues Canadian society does not encourage citizens to remain interested in politics or research election information.

Prof. Milner said Canadians lack “civic literacy” — they do not seek out political information by reading newspapers, visiting libraries or researching the candidates in their riding.
“There is no miracle cure,” said Prof. Milner, author of Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work.

“It’s not much good to blame individuals. It may or may not be the fault of individuals, but we’re not going to change them anyway, because it’s their choice.”

He suggested Canada follow the example of Scandinavian countries, where the voter turnout rate is higher, by encouraging lifelong learning, civic education and informal “study circles” for adults.

Indeed, the authors of Citizens found that the main source of information about politics, even among university graduates, is television. Younger Canadians were most likely to rely on their family and friends for political insight.

Even so, it is still possible for most voters to responsibly cast ballots, Prof. Blais suggested.

“One should not assume that it’s impossible to vote in a reasonable fashion, even if one’s level of knowledge is relatively low.”

He said a “substantial minority” of voters tend to vote along party lines. Others vote based on issues like abortion. If a voter takes the time to determine each party’s stance on that issue, “then they can vote quite reasonably without knowing anything else,” he said.

Based on a study following the 2000 election, what Canadians don’t know:

  • 59% Unable to identify only female prime minister
  • 44% Unable to name prime minister responsible for free trade
  • 43% Unable to identify leader of NDP